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Preview: Bennett Returns as Panthers Battle the Lightning in Game 3

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

With their playoff series shifting across the Sunshine State, the Panthers are set to begin their climb out of a 2-0 hole when they visit the Lightning for Game 3 at Amalie Arena on Thursday.

"We're definitely still in this series," Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe said. "We have a lot of confidence in that room. You win one game and then you never know what can happen. The playoffs are crazy. Anything can happen. It's one-goal games. We'll see what happens tonight."

After suffering a 5-4 loss in Game 1, the Panthers came up just short once again in Game 2 on Tuesday in Sunrise. Trailing 2-0 in the second period, Mason Marchment's re-direction goal cut the deficit in half until the Lightning locked in the 3-1 win with an empty-netter in the third period.

In essence, both games can be counted as one-goal losses.

But giving the Panthers plenty confidence heading into Game 3 is the fact they have been just a bit better than the Lightning at 5-on-5 thus far, leading 4-3 in goals, 93-82 in shot attempts and 40-31 in scoring chances through the first two meetings in the series, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

During the regular season, the Panthers were also one of the strongest teams in the NHL on the road, including going 2-1-1 at Amalie Arena while edging out the Lightning by a combined score of 16-15 in those contests. Overall, they finished tied for fourth in the NHL with 17 road victories.

"All year we've been a good road team," Marchment said. "We've been just playing a simple game, just trying to get those points for the points race. Now it's the playoffs and it's more important. I think we'll have no problem coming here and showing them what we've got."

Bolstering the team's depth, the Panthers will also get one of their top players back tonight.

After being forced to sit out Game 2 while serving a suspension for charging Lightning forward Blake Coleman in Game 1, Sam Bennett will return to the lineup for Game 3 and is expected to slot right back into his usual spot in the center of the team's second line and on special teams.

One of the top acquisitions at last month's trade deadline, Bennett has been playing like a man possessed ever since the Panthers picked up him in a deal with the Flames.

In 10 games after the move, he notched 15 points (six goals, nine assists) to close out the regular season on fire. In Game 1, he registered two assists, three hits and two takeaways.

"You need everybody to add a little something to their games," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of bouncing back tonight. "I think having a little consistency of purpose in our lineup would be a little better, but I love the way we're competing and the way we're working and battling."

Making his second straight start between the pipes, the Panthers will turn to Chris Driedger once again tonight. Coming off a solid performance in his NHL playoff debut, the 27-year-old goaltender made 26 saves in Game 2, including giving up nothing over the final two periods.

The top-two scorers on the Panthers during the regular season, Jonathan Huberdeau, who sat first with 61 points, and Aleksander Barkov, who ranked second with 58, are leading the team with three points each in the playoffs. Behind them, four different players have tallied two points.

At the other end of the ice, the defending Staley Cup-champion Lightning will hope their strong play on home ice during the regular season will carry over into the playoffs. Going 21-7-0, they finished fifth in goals scored (3.46) and tied for sixth in goals allowed (2.32) per game at home.

After missing the entire regular season with an injury, Nikita Kucherov, who took home the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 2019, has looked no worse for wear since returning, racking up a team-leading four points (two goals, two assists) through the first two games of the postseason.

Behind Kucherov, Brayden Point, who netted the game-winning goal in Game 1, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman all have three points, while three other skates have a pair.

To the surprise of no one, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who led the NHL with 31 wins during the regular season, will man the crease once again for the Lightning tonight after turning aside 35 of 39 shots in Game 1 and 32 of 33 shots in Game 2.

With the Panthers holding an optional skate this morning, Quenneville said "we'll see" when asked about any potential lineup changes heading into tonight's game. With that in mind, we won't know exactly how the team's lines or pairings will look until much closer to puck drop.

Regardless, Quenneville said patience will be key as the team looks to bounce back.

"Chasing a game against them is not easy, so let's make sure that we start well," Quenneville said. "You've got to play disciplined. We've got to check with the mentality that, hey, we can't just go run and gun with that team. Defensively we've got to have a purpose and manage the puck in the offensive zone with the same type of mindset. We need to be patient in the game."

PANTHERS vs. LIGHTNING IN THE REGULAR SEASON

- ALL-TIME vs. TBL: 71-48-10-17

- ALL-TIME HOME vs. TBL: 42-16-4-10

- 2020-21 vs. TBL: 5-2-1

PANTHERS NOTES

- Aleksander Barkov led the Panthers in goals (26), even-strength goals (18), even-strength points (38) and shots (176) during the regular season. He also ranked second on the team in assists (32), points (58), power-play goals (7) and power-play points (19). He stands as the only player in the history of the franchise to produced six consecutive 50-point, 20-goal seasons.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau led Florida in assists (41), points (61) and power-play points (24) for the second straight season, while also ranking second on the team in goals (20) and even-strength points (37). In 38 career games against Tampa Bay, he's tallied 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists).

-- MacKenzie Weegar paced all Panthers defensemen in scoring with a career-high 35 points, including posting three goals and eight assists over his final eight games of the regular season. He also sat first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points (31) and plus/minus (tied-+29).

-- Anthony Duclair recorded six goals and 10 assists over his last 14 games to finish the regular season with 32 points. Logging a career-best +27 rating this season, he also found the back of the net three times in seven games against the Lightning.

-- A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Patric Hornqvist has recorded 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists) in 90 career playoff games. During his first season with the Panthers, a team-leading eight of his 14 goals came on the power play, including potting a pair against the Lightning.

-- Frank Vatrano finished tied for third on the Panthers with 18 goals, including a team-leading seven game-winners. Of those 18 goals, 14 were scored in the third period or overtime.

-- Radko Gudas led the NHL with 250 hits during the regular season.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Mason Marchment

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Juho Lammikko, Nikita Gusev, Aleksi Heponiemi, Anton Stralman, Grigori Denisenko, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Spencer Knight, Kevin Connauton

Taxi squad: Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt, Brady Keeper, Sam Montembeault, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- May 10: D Kevin Connauton was recalled to Florida's active roster.

- May 4: G Philippe Desrosiers was loaned to the Taxi Squad.

- May 3: G Philippe Desrosiers was recalled from the Taxi Squad.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Thursday, May 20 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Where: Amalie Arena - Tampa, FL

TV: Bally Sports Florida, USA Network

Stream: Bally Sports App

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Ch. 220 / Streaming Ch. 932

Watch Party: Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park (reservation required)

Pre-Game Listen: Hear from Kevin Weekes on the latest episode of "Around the NHL."

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